Chapter XXVI. The Search on the River
 

As may be surmised, the news which Dick and Tom had to tell to the others at the stock farm produced great excitement.

"Dora and Nellie gone!" gasped Mrs. Stanhope. "Oh, Dick, what has become of them?"

"They must have gotten into some trouble!" cried Mrs. Laning. "You found no trace of them?"

"We did not," said Tom. "But we tried hard enough, I can assure you."

"Oh, what shall we do?" wailed Mrs. Stanhope, and then she fainted away, and it was a good quarter of an hour before she could be restored.

All the boys were highly excited, and Sam was for making a search for the missing houseboat without delay.

"They may have gone on board and Captain Starr may have sailed off with them," said the youngest Rover. "Remember, he is a queer stick, to say the least."

"That doesn't explain the screams I heard," said Tom.

"I dink me dot Paxter got somedings to do mit dis," said Hans. "He vos a rascals from his hair to his doenails alretty!"

"The only thing to do is to make a search," came from Songbird Powell. "I'm ready to go out, rain or no rain."

They were all ready, and in the end it was decided that all of the boys should prosecute the hunt, leaving Mrs. Stanhope, Mrs. Laning, and Grace with the wife of the proprietor of the stock farm. The proprietor himself, a Kentuckian named Paul Livingstone, said he would go with them.

"If there has been foul play of any sort I will aid you to have justice done," said Paul Livingstone. "To me this whole thing looks mightily crooked."

"One thing is certain,--if the houseboat was stolen, the mist and rain will aid the thieves to get away with her," said Dick.

It was a rather silent crowd that rode into Skemport an hour and a half later. Here a doctor was roused up and sent to the stock farm, to see if Mrs. Stanhope needed him, for she was weak and might collapse completely when least expected.

Once at the spot where the Dora had been tied up, another search was begun for the girls and the houseboat. Some went up the shore and others down, each with a lantern which had been provided to dispel the gloom.

   "Oh, where? Oh, where?
   In dire despair
     We search the shore in vain!"

came lowly from Songbird, but then he felt too heavy-hearted to finish the verse and heaved a sigh instead. "This is simply heart-rending," he said.

"That's what it is," answered Dick.

Hans was not far off, shambling along in his own peculiar fashion. He held up his lantern and by the dim rays made out a building some distance away.

"I yonder vot is in dare?" he said to himself. "Maype I go und look, hey? It ton't cost me noddings."

Through the mist and rain he approached the building and walked around to the door, which was closed. He flung it open and held up his lantern to see inside.

"Du meine Zeit! Vot is dis?" he gasped. "Cabtain Starr, or I vos treaming! Hi, Cabtain, vot you vos doing here, alretty?" he called out.

"Is that--that you, Mueller?" asked the captain, in a trembling voice.

"Sure it vos me. Vot you did here, tole me dot?"

"I--the rascals tied me fast. They said they'd come and give me a hundred dollars in the morning, but I don't think they'll do it."

"Py chimanatics! Vait a minute." Hans ran outside and waved his lantern. "Come here!" he bawled. "Come here, kvick, eferybody!"

His cry summoned the others, and they quickly gathered at the stable and released the captain. While they were doing this, they made the simple-minded fellow tell his story.

"Describe those two fellows," said Dick, and Captain Starr did so. The description was perfect.

"Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp!" cried Tom.

"Of course, you didn't send that message?" asked the captain, of Dick.

"I did not, captain. It was a trick to get you away from the Dora and steal the houseboat."

"Is the craft stolen?"

"Yes."

"Oh, dear!" Captain Starr wrung his hands. "Please don't blame me!"

"I don't know as I can blame you, exactly. But you want to have your wits about you after this."

When Captain Starr heard about the disappearance of the two girls he was more interested than ever.

"I heard them scream," he said.

"Where was that?"

"I think they must have been right in front of where the Dora was tied up."

"When was this?" asked Sam.

"Not very long after the villains made me their prisoner."

"It's as clear as day!" cried Fred Garrison. "Baxter and Flapp first stole the houseboat and then they abducted Dora and Nellie."

"It's a wretched piece of business," came from Dick. "Oh, if I can only lay my hands on them they shall suffer for it!"

"We must chase the houseboat, that's all I know to do," put in Tom. "And the quicker we begin the better."

"That's easily said, Tom. How are we going to locate the craft in this mist? She may have gone up the stream and she may have gone down."

"More than likely she went down with the current. They hadn't any steam tug handy to pull her."

Paul Livingstone was appealed to and told them where they could find the coal docks at which their own tug was lying. All hurried to the place and called up Captain Carson.

"I'll get up steam just as soon as I can," said the tug captain, and hustled out his engineer and fireman. Soon the black smoke was pouring from the tug's stack and in less than half an hour they were ready to move.

"This seems like a wild-goose chase," remarked Sam. "But it is better than standing around with one's hands in his pockets."

"I wish I had dat Dan Baxter heah!" said Aleck Pop. "I'd duck him in the ribber an' hold him undah 'bout ten minutes!"

All were soon on the steam tug, which was crowded by the party. The lanterns were lit, and they moved down the Ohio slowly and cautiously.

"We had better move from side to side of the river," suggested Dick. "Then we won't be so liable to pass the houseboat without seeing her."

As all of the party were wet, they took turns in drying and warming themselves in the engine-room of the tug. Those on the lookout did what they could to pierce the gloom, but with small satisfaction.

Half an hour later they passed a small river steamer and hailed the craft.

"What's wanted?" shouted somebody through a megaphone.

"Seen anything of a houseboat around here?"

"No," was the prompt answer.

"All right; thanks!" And then they allowed the river steamer to pass them.

"Dis night vos so vet like neffer vos!" remarked Hans.

"Well, we have got to make the best of it," answered Dick. "I don't care how wet I get, if only we are successful in our chase."

"I am mit you on dot," returned the German cadet, quickly.

Two hours passed and they saw no other craft. They had passed several settlements of more or less importance, but not a sign of the missing houseboat appeared.

"Here comes something!" cried Tom, presently, as they heard a distant puff-puff.

"Steer in the direction of that sound," said Dick, to Captain Carson, and this was done.

Out of the mist appeared the light of a long launch, having on board several officers of the law.

"Steam tug, ahoy!" was the cry.

"Ahoy!" shouted back Captain Carson.

"Seen anything of another launch around here?"

"No."

"See anything of a small sailboat?"

"No."

"Confound the luck!" came in another voice from the launch.

"What's the matter?" asked Paul Livingstone.

"Hullo, Mr. Livingstone, is that you?" called out one of the officers of the law on the launch.

"It is, Captain Dixon. What's the trouble?"

"We are looking for those two horse thieves, Pick Loring and Hamp Gouch. I suppose you know they escaped."

"So I heard. Well, I hope you get them," answered the owner of the stock farm. "They took four of my horses once."

"So I understand. What are you doing out here this time of night?"

"We are looking for a houseboat that was stolen. Seen anything of such a craft?"

"Certainly we did."

"You did!" burst from Dick and several of the others. "Where?"

"Down the river four or five miles. The fellows on board told us that they had seen a sailboat with two men in it beating up the river, and from the description we took the men to be Loring and Gouch."

"How did the houseboat look?" asked Tom.

One of the officers of the law gave a brief description of the Dora and told what he could of Baxter and Flapp.

"It's our houseboat beyond a doubt," said Sam. "And those two fellows were Flapp and Baxter."

"Did you see anybody else on the houseboat?" questioned Dick.

"Not a soul. So the houseboat was stolen?" went on the police officer, curiously.

"Yes, and, worse than that, two girls have been abducted."

"Creation! That's serious."

"It will be serious for those rascals if we catch them!" muttered Tom. "Where did the houseboat go to?"

"It was heading straight down the river when we saw it last."

"Then come!" cried Dick. "Let us go after the craft and lose no time."

A moment later the steam tug parted company with the launch, and the chase after the Dora was resumed.